The Last Resort

How an ambitious but troubled plan to create an exclusive skiers’ paradise may revive—or cripple—one of Colorado’s last authentic mountain towns.

June 2011

Driving past the sprawling development of Vail on I-70, the highway dips and veers toward Minturn. There’s not a hotel or condo in sight, just a quick turnoff to U.S. Route 24, headed toward Leadville. Across the Eagle River is the “Boneyard,” Vail Resorts’ dumping ground for Sno-Cats, snowmobiles, and general equipment. Past the Boneyard, a few buildings start to pop up, and after a quick bend in the road, there’s Minturn. This isn’t immediately apparent, because despite being more than 100 years old, Minturn doesn’t have a town sign.

What there is of downtown stretches for just a few blocks, and there are nearly as many storefronts with “For Lease” signs as ones that are occupied. Judging by foot and car traffic, the most popular place in town is the Shell gas station, Minturn’s de facto grocery, hardware store, and convenience shop. The town’s sidewalks, which famed urban planning writer Jane Jacobs called a community’s “most vital organs,” make Minturn seem diseased; those that do exist, on Main Street through the central business district, are rutted and unshoveled. Most of the streets in tiny Minturn are edged only by a shoulder, so walking around in summer can be nerve-wracking—and downright harrowing during the icy winter months. A few miles south of downtown is Minturn Middle School, the town’s last community school. It closed its doors for good this month.

Straight ahead, Battle Mountain rises above U.S. 24. Its broad shoulders dominate the landscape, and as the road climbs and winds, the ghost town of Gilman pops up across the valley. Gilman shut down after the Eagle Mine—for decades the lifeblood of the local micro-economy—closed its doors in 1977 and left behind still-perilous tracts of contaminated land.

Today, snowdrifts pile up on Gilman’s abandoned streets and graffiti mars the midcentury houses. Inside a building a newspaper rests on a table, next to an empty folding chair. Boots sit on steps, ready to be put on. Medical records litter a deserted hospital’s floor. Paper is strewn around the post office. A bowling ball lies stranded in a lane’s gutter, never to be retrieved. It’s as if the residents were going about their daily routines, and then suddenly stopped and left forever.

The people of Gilman and Minturn had been mining this mountain their entire lives, hacking out zinc and silver and lead like their fathers and grandfathers before them. Many didn’t know anything else. Zinc galvanizes steel against rust, and the 20th century—with its demand for skyscrapers, and for the tanks and guns and tools of war—helped the mine thrive. Owned by the New Jersey Zinc Company, the mine produced nearly 13 million tons of ore and was, at one point, one of the largest zinc mines in the United States. During World War II, it was so vital to the war effort that some miners were exempt from the draft. What the miners didn’t realize while they were digging away was how the rest of Eagle County and Colorado were passing them by. In 1962, a former 10th Mountain Division soldier named Pete Seibert strung up a few ski lifts a couple of miles down the road to create Vail ski resort. Within two years, Sports Illustrated gushed, “Never in the history of U.S. skiing...has a bare mountain leaped in such a short time into the four-star category of ski resorts.” Vail became synonymous with skiing, Colorado’s new mountain industry—with its invitingly pure snow and dashing, ruddy-cheeked glamour—while Minturn and Gilman remained gritty, blue-collar mining towns.

At the close of the Vietnam War, zinc demand dried up, and the Eagle Mine plunged into obscurity. It shut down on December 16, 1977, costing 154 mineworkers their jobs. Those in Minturn, at least, still had their homes. Gilman, though, was a company town, so the residents were eventually evicted, the entrance to the town was blocked, and a sign was put up: “Town for Sale, 1,700 acres.”

New Jersey Zinc employed a skeleton crew until 1983, when it sold off the mine and Gilman to Glenn T. Miller, a Colorado businessman. Miller briefly re-opened the mine before closing it for good and selling it to a company named Battle Mountain Corporation. At some point, the dewatering pumps—which kept poisonous minerals such as arsenic and cadmium from dissolving into the water—were turned off. The pollutants soon started leeching into the Eagle River, which contributed to the decimation of the area’s renowned brown trout. The Environmental Protection Agency arrived to remove transformers containing PCBs, a toxic compound known to cause developmental problems in children. By 1986, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had sued Gulf+Western—which had acquired longtime mine operator New Jersey Zinc—for its decades of polluting and failing to clean up the mining waste. In 1988, the Eagle Mine, the town of Gilman, and the mining waste piles along the Eagle River were declared Superfund sites.

By now Minturnites were out of work, Gilmanites were homeless, and they all worried their drinking water had been poisoned. Gulf+Western and the EPA built a water treatment plant; they also excavated millions of tons of mine waste, consolidated it into one spot, and covered the area with three feet of clean soil. The cleanup pile was placed just 1,500 feet from Minturn Middle School. The Superfund remediation wasn’t thorough enough to allow people to live on the property or even spend an extended period of time there. The EPA’s Superfund Record of Decision from 1998 said there were “…basically no risks to a trespasser for the unlikely exposure of 90 consecutive days.” The partial cleanup “protects human health by limiting access to the area in the short term and requiring EPA, State, and local approval of development plans to ensure future users are not at risk from unacceptable exposures.” A gate now blocks access to Gilman, and no one except EPA officials and the land’s owners is allowed in.

With Gilman and the Eagle Mine gone, Minturn lurched toward the close of the century. Schools and businesses left, and its streets and sidewalks decayed. A prideful town that once scoffed at prefab ski villages, Minturn became a bedroom community for resort workers, mechanics, lifties, and bartenders. And while the town tried to maintain its sense of neighborliness—trick-or-treaters from across Eagle County return every Halloween to visit the ungated community whose homes are actually occupied—the town had no answer for the amenities of nearby villages. Minturn, which had once been the lettuce capital of the United States, started a farmers’ market in 1998; Vail and Edwards soon launched competitors. Today, despite Minturn’s membership in the Vail Valley Partnership—the area’s chamber and tourism bureau—the town isn’t even on the bureau’s local maps.

“What makes a family community?” asks Frank Lorenti, one of the more vocal Minturn residents. “A park. A rec center. Sidewalks. Bike paths. A school makes a community. It would be great if I could continue to send my kids to school in Minturn. But now I have to drive out of my ‘family’ town to do that. We used to have a dance hall and a movie theater. How have we gone backwards?”